For science and medicine, the mid-1980s was a time of transition and novelty. The first gene therapy trial was underway, and the seeds of the Human Genome Project had been sown. The first cases of HIV/AIDS had come to light, terrifying physicians, researchers, and the American public.
NIH was at the center of all of this, and watching closely was Dr. Ruth L. Kirschstein, who had been named the first woman director of an NIH Institute, the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, in 1974. That institute, in fact, had helped to spawn the genetic revolution, supporting the first studies of recombinant DNA. The pace of science was fast and furious.
Across town, a group of women lawmakers — among them Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) — were decidedly displeased with one scientific area that seemed to be moving too slowly. How, these women wondered, could medical treatments be trusted if no one had tested them in female patients?
Independently, Kirschstein was already on the case and had done some groundwork to see what might be done about addressing women's health in a scientific manner. She also began talking with the Congresswomen, and together they and many others – including the late Dr. Bernadine Healy, who would become the first-ever woman director of NIH – led the NIH in 1990 to announce the formation of the Office of Research on Women's Health, or ORWH.
A few years later, the 1993 NIH Revitalization Act mandated that all NIH-funded clinical research studies include women, an action that has had a significant positive impact on the well-being of not only women, but of men and children too. Today, NIH-funded research digs deeper, looking for and finding sex and gender differences at the levels of cells, organs, and tissues that can help explain why women and men have different health needs.
Little did I know in 1990, when ORWH was born and I had just completed my general surgery internship, that I would today have the honor and privilege to continue the groundbreaking work started by Ruth Kirschstein, who died in 2009, and carried forward by her successor and my own predecessor and mentor, Dr. Vivian W. Pinn, a formidable force and scientific leader for women's health in her own right.
In the various top positions Kirschstein held at the NIH – she later went on to lead the entire agency as acting director – she continued to rally for wider representation of women and minorities in research, as well as in the workforce. Kirschstein instilled the notion that leadership is an opportunity not a prize, and she lived the mantra.
"I have felt, and still feel, that there is no more worthy endeavor than to serve the country, its people, and the science which has given me so much joy," she once said, thankful for every day of her long and storied NIH career.